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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

California ups renewables target again with new plan to add 85GW by 2035

The updated carbon-cutting goals will require immense amounts of solar, batteries, offshore wind, geothermal and transmission. Can it all be built fast enough?
By Jeff St. John

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Many rows of solar panels in the foreground, low rolling hills bedecked with smatterings of orange poppy fields in the back
A solar farm next to the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve west of Lancaster, California (George Rose/Getty Images)

California’s already hugely ambitious clean energy goals have just gotten even bigger. Now the state’s utilities, regulators, clean-energy developers and transmission grid planners must figure out how to achieve the colossal new buildout needed to meet these goals.

On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a plan that will set the state on a course to adding 86,000 megawatts of new resources to the grid by 2035. That’s more than a doubling of the nameplate capacity” of 75,000 megawatts that constitutes the state’s existing resource mix, CPUC President Alice Reynolds said during Thursday’s meeting.

The new integrated resource plan calls for 54,000 megawatts of new renewable resources, most of it solar power, as well as wind power built inside and outside the state’s borders. It also includes more than 28,000 MW of batteries to store that power when it’s produced so it can be used when the state’s grid needs it.

Drilling down into specific categories, the plan calls for 2,000 MW of geothermal power plants, 4,700 MW of offshore floating wind farms and 2,000 MW of long-duration storage resources — a category that could encompass pumped hydropower reservoirs, compressed-air energy storage systems or other technologies that can store energy for eight hours or longer, all of which will require years of lead time to site and build.

This mix of clean resources is what CPUC models indicate is needed to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions from electricity to 30 million metric tons by 2030. That’s the target set by state air regulators last year — their most aggressive yet, but considered essential by many environmental groups to meet California’s long-term goal of achieving carbon-neutrality by 2045.

This is something we’ve been asking for for many, many years, and we’re very excited it’s happening now,” said Ari Eisenstadt, campaign manager for Regenerate California, a collaboration of environmental justice groups including the Sierra Club and the California Environmental Justice Alliance.

But it also represents a massive expansion of an electricity system that’s already struggling to grow quickly enough to meet the state’s needs. Supply shortages and rising prices for solar panels and batteries, as well as backlogs in permitting and interconnecting new projects to the grid, have slowed progress on previous short-term procurements ordered by the CPUC, including its 2021 order to procure 11,500 megawatts of zero-carbon resources by 2026 to meet the state’s peak grid needs.

Thursday’s decision increases the scope of that clean energy capacity procurement, ordering 2,000 megawatts to be online by mid-2026 and 2,000 megawatts more by mid-2027. Eisenstadt praised this decision to expand clean energy growth, but warned that the CPUC and state grid operator CAISO must work together to ensure it’s built where it’s most needed to relieve reliability and transmission constraints, and in places where it can directly displace gas plants.”

The integrated resource plan approved by the CPUC on Thursday doesn’t delve into the details of where and how the mix of resources it calls for will be built. But it does inform CAISO’s transmission and reliability planning — a process that includes determining whether the state can safely shut down its remaining fossil-gas-fired power plants, many of which are located in lower-income communities.

California needs a mix of many different kinds of zero-carbon power to keep its grid running as those gas plants are retired, particularly during hot summer evenings when solar power fades but air-conditioning demand spikes. Climate-change-induced heat waves have pushed that summer demand for electricity higher, while heat, drought and wildfires are threatening the supply of power both from within and beyond the state’s borders.

During an August 2020 heat wave, CAISO was forced to call on utilities to impose rolling blackouts that left hundreds of thousands of customers without power for up to two hours at a time. Governor Gavin Newsom (D) and state lawmakers responded with a series of emergency measures to expand grid supply and subsequently asked Californians to conserve power during grid emergencies such as last September’s heat wave. The state also passed a law last year to extend the life of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant to preserve its supply of carbon-free power, although the plant’s future remains in doubt.

At the same time, California’s push to electrify vehicles and building heating will add more demand to the grid. Over the past two years, the state’s forecast of electricity demand by 2035 has risen by about 5 percent, largely due to the prospect of millions of EVs and heat pumps replacing gasoline-fueled cars and fossil-gas-fueled furnaces and water heaters, said Seth Hilton, a partner in the energy development practice group of law firm Stoel Rives.

That’s a lot of capacity that needs to come online over the next 10 years,” Hilton said. And there remain significant challenges around the timelines for how we get the transmission developed to interconnect those resources.” California, like much of the rest of the country, is struggling to accommodate all the new renewables seeking to connect to its transmission grid and to permit and build the new power lines needed to carry that power to where it’s needed.

In particular, California’s hope to rely on offshore floating wind farms to provide clean power during the evenings can only pan out if there’s a significant buildout of transmission lines and equipment, Hilton said. The base-case portfolio in CPUC’s new plan includes 4,700 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035, in line with goals set by the California Energy Commission.

CPUC staff also modeled an alternative portfolio that included 13,400 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035, however, and found that its value in providing energy at times when other resources are scarce could allow the state to build significantly less solar and battery storage as a result.

But modeling a portfolio of resources is far different than building the policies and industrial capacity required to carry them out, Hilton noted. In the case of offshore wind, California has yet to determine how we build it, how we get the transmission built, and who’s going to procure it and pay for it,” he said. 

A graph comparing the different scenarios for California's energy resource mix
(California Public Utilities Commission)

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.